Backcountry, Cat, and heli in Alberta

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  • Backcountry skiing was introduced to Alberta in the early 1900’s by Swiss mountain guides, and has become one of the best ways to enjoy the sublime serenity of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. With touring, cat, and heli-skiing all being available, powder hounds have multiple ways of getting out there, way out there.

    Before You Start
    If touring without a guide, know what you’re getting into; the Alberta Rockies are well known for avalanches. It’s best to take a few avalanche safety courses and have the necessary avalanche gear in case of emergency. Going with a Heli or Cat operator means you have an experienced guide.

    Waterton Lakes - Remote Alpine Splendour
    Tucked in the southwest corner of Alberta is Canada’s fourth oldest national park -Waterton Lakes. The prairies smash onto the Rockies like a giant rolling ocean. The spires look like they are chewing the sky. After turning off highway 6, south of picturesque Pincher Creek, you’ll pass through the park gates and not long after reach the town of Waterton. In the winter, Waterton is a tourist town for ghosts; it snows here like Mother Nature is trying to cover up a secret.
    Because Waterton is primarily a summer destination (curiously unknown by most Albertans) it continues to be quiet in winter. It is telling however that backcountry ski guides from Montana frequent it. A road up to Cameron Lake gives backcountry enthusiasts instant access to 1646 meters elevation, as well as to several trailheads that take skiers into the high alpine. If however, you are looking to just enjoy the winter wilderness, then Cameron Lake has an excellent cross-country ski trail, and is functional for snowshoeing. For ski and touring enthusiasts, however, Waterton is about as wild as it gets, turning the legendary summer trails into incredible ski terrain. Guides are available for $100 for the day and highly recommended.
    Only three Waterton hotels are open during the winter: Waterton Glacier Suites, Crandle Mountain Lodge, and Waterton Lakes Lodge. Prices for all three range in and around the $100 per night range, with Waterton Lakes Lodge offering a special of two nights for the price of one. Waterton Lakes Lodge is also the newest of all three accommodations and even offers $15 per day snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals. Staying here in the winter you can imagine being a traveller from the bygone railway era. By the end of the weekend, all the guests have met each other and shared stories over pints of lager or plates of the lodge’s signature dish, yak dip - like beef dip, only infused with a wild game flavour from locally farmed yak. It’s one heck of a hearty way to warm the cockles and share some grand tails of turns and trails.

    Skoki Lodge - Historic Luxury Fit for the Royals
    North America’s second commercial ski lodge has been one of Alberta’s best-kept secrets since the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ski Club built it in 1931. The lodge hasn’t changed much in its 70 year history; in fact, the only recent addition to the lodge was the two day flush toilet and bathtub installation, during an exclusive visit by the recently wed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate. Once the royals were flown out, the toilet and tub were removed, preserving the lodge’s eco and backwoods credibility.
    Skoki Lodge is part of the 11 square mile lease held by the Lake Louise Ski Resort, located just off Highway One, an hour and a half drive west of Calgary. After checking in at guest services, guests are taken by gondola and chairlift to the backside of the mountain where they must hike 11km into the valley. Once there, the majesty and the history of one of Alberta’s natural wonders come alive. Dry winter air mingles with mountain purity, and the tracks of skiers and local wildlife are the only signs of activity. Like viewing the night sky miles away from city lights, the mountains are profoundly more powerful the deeper in you travel. The slopes in the valley are milder compared to the steep wild of Waterton, allowing for slightly safer conditions. The real draw is the combination of history and majesty that Skoki Valley and the lodge provide. A traveler would be hard-pressed to find a similar experience in Alberta, Canada, or North America, like the one offered at here.
    A sojourn at Skoki is both an authentic and luxurious affair, with typical rates of over $400/night for two people, including meals and tax. February and March, along with July and August are high seasons, but deals can still be found during the week instead of on weekends.

    There’s More Than One Way to Ski a Cat - With or Without the Kids
    Since 1975, Cat skiing has been the most affordable way to ride perfect Canadian Champagne Powder. Invented in Canada, Cat skiing accesses backcountry terrain by large, snow tracked trucks, normally used to groom ski slopes. There’s nothing quite like the anticipation felt rumbling up the side of a mountain in the back of a giant snow cat, along with 8 to 10 anxious individuals. Alberta’s only Cat Ski operation – Powder Stagecoach - is located at Castle Mountain in Southern Alberta. Turn south off highway 3 onto highway 507. Simply follow this road south as it turns into highway 774 and keep going all the way to the Castle Mountain Ski Resort turn off, on your right hand side.
    Powder Stagecoach is one of the most affordable cat ski operations in Canada. Unlike its British Columbia and American competitors, Powder Stagecoach offers 2000 vertical feet runs (considerably larger than most operations), over 800 acres of terrain, and nearly ten meters of average snowfall.
    Castle Mountain itself offers three accommodation types, with a hostel / hotel right on the mountain. Rooms range from $35-$85 per night. For families or larger parties, the Castle Mountain Chalet, starts at around $100 per night. Since the Powder Stagecoach is part of the resort, Castle is one of only four resorts in Canada where parents can put their kids in an all day on-hill lesson, then head out into the truly steep and deep. For more information go to http://www.skicastle.ca/page.cfm?pgID=93.

    Rise to the Top – Heli Skiing over the Border
    There are no heli-ski operations that operate in Alberta. Because Jasper, Banff and Waterton National Parks account for a significant chunk of the Alberta Rockies, operational terrain is severely limited. However, RK Heliski operates in the Purcell range in British Columbia and runs daily shuttles from Banff. They will pick you up at your hotel, and have you at their base lodge in time for gourmet breakfast.
    A variety of one-day packages are available – including three run, five run, and elite five run. Get five friends together of similar riding ability and head up in your own helicopter for five runs of fresh-snow fantasy on variable, exceptional powder terrain. Shuttles leave Banff every morning at 6:15 am, ensuring you’ll be heading up a helicopter stairway to powder heaven by 9:00 am.
    Pricing is on the affordable end of the spectrum for heli-skiing, ranging from around $750.00 - $1050.00 per person, including breakfast, safety training and equipment, a professional guide, and access to powder skis or boards.
    For more information go to http://www.rkheliski.com/daily-heliskiing-british-columbia.

    Gear Up
    Light touring gear can be rented when you check in at Lake Louise Ski Resort or pick it up in the town of Lake Louise at Wilson’s Sports. If, however you need full alpine gear, then either Mountain Equipment Co-op in Calgary, or the University of Calgary Outdoor Club is the best option. While there you can pick up all necessary avalanche gear.